The Draw of the Olympic Handball Tournaments

and now we are all waiting for the fun to begin...

As I see it, today’s Olympic draw serves two main purposes: it allows the participating teams to start preparing in a more focused way on their initial opponents; and it provides handball fans around the world with a more firm basis to begin speculations about the outcome. But I do not think it really affects in a major way the race for the medals. Yes, it sets up some intriguing match-ups in the preliminary groups, but the system that allows no less than four teams in each group to go to the quarter-finals really does not seem to create an unfair or unreasonable burden for any top contender.

Moreover, especially on the women’s side, the recent qualifying event suggests that the field is perhaps more even than ever. I do not see any clear favorites for the medals. And almost any team could advance to the medal round without being seen as a tremendous surprise. Well, I guess I must exclude the home team! Any win for them would be a surprise, despite their famous fighting spirit. Perhaps one should not base too much on the results of the qualifying groups, but the Russian second half against Denmark was impressive, and the same goes for the Montenegro victory in France. Much of the speculation will most likely involve Norway’s chances for a repeat. But I will be more excited about the possibility of a Brazilian surprise or a return to the top level by the Korean team.

On the men’s side, it may seem easier to pick favorites: it would be difficult to ignore any of the medal winners in the 2011 World Championship: France, Denmark and Spain. It may be too early for the Serbs to be a serious medal contender this time; but who knows, perhaps their success in EURO 2012 inspired them enough. Or what about a ‘last gasp’ from the current Croatian generation? Most likely Tunisia and Iceland will act as ‘spoilers’ in some games, but I do not see them as medal winners. And of course I will upset my Swedish friends if I say the same thing about their team…

The speculation about the draw itself had largely focused on what would be the effect of the British privilege to be in the fourth row and, above all, their right to choose groups after the teams from all the other rows had been placed. It had been feared that this might cause a major imbalance. On the women’s side, undoubtedly the teams who will now play Great Britain instead of France will tend to be satisfied. But it is on the men’s side where the effect may be more noticeable. As can be seen below, the teams in Group A who get Great Britain instead of Serbia, will also get an injury-ridden Argentina instead of Denmark, because Great Britain did not hesitate to choose the group with Argentina, even though it will set up an intriguing ‘Falklands/Malvinas’ battle as some have labeled it. And it will revive the anger in Denmark about their unfair treatment as World Championship silver medalist.

Finally, looking at the geographic distribution of the European teams on the men’s and women’s side combined, it is first interesting to see the overall ‘perimeter’ concentration of the participants: the Nordic countries, France/Spain, the Balkans, and Hungary/Russia. What happened to Central Europe (well, the Hungarians may quarrel) and, in particular, where is Germany!? And to take it a step further, it is really amazing that on both the men’s and the women’s side, the ‘Eastern’ teams got clustered in the same groups, while among the women there is a distinctly Scandinavian/Latin combo. Now the groups:

Women A: Montenegro, Russia, Croatia, Great Britain, Brazil, Angola
Women B: Norway, Spain, Denmark, France, Sweden, Korea

Men A: France, Sweden, Iceland, Great Britain, Argentina, Tunisia
Men B: Spain, Croatia, Hungary, Serbia, Denmark, Korea